FEMA Administrator Forced to Appear Before Congress

This is a guest post from Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club.

Yesterday just wasn't your lucky day if you happened to be David Paulison, the Administrator of FEMA.  He was called -- under oath -- before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for an ol' fashioned tongue-lashing, Henry Waxman-style.  Paulison was made to answer for the toxic tin cans in which FEMA has housed thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.  Despite the brow-beating he took today, Paulison is still of course much luckier than the 120,000 residents of the Gulf Coast who actually still live in the toxic trailers -- suffering from severe respiratory and other health problems every day, even risking cancer due to long-term exposure to toxic, carcinogenic formaldehyde.

Residents of the toxic trailers came to Capitol Hill to testify about the horrors they have endured while living in the toxic tins cans.  Lindsay Huckabee, a mother of three, recalled tearfully how her children's health problems were so extensive and frequent that she has become desensitized to seeing her daughter covered in blood from her daily nosebleeds.  She also testified that every baby born to residents of her FEMA trailer park since Katrina has become asthmatic.  Paul Stewart testified that FEMA "treated him like a criminal" and attempted to replace his toxic trailer with a used, dirty trailer replete with a bed full of bugs.  Following this incident, he was forced to sleep in his truck over the weekend because FEMA could only deal with him come Monday.  Eventually he spent $50,000 of his own money to buy a formaldehyde-free trailer.

For its part, FEMA tried to stonewall the Committee's request for documents, citing that old Bush Administration chestnut: "attorney-client privilege."  A subpoena made quick work of that excuse, forcing FEMA to surrender over 5,000 documents revealing the depths of FEMA's insensitivity to the complaints of those suffering. The documents revealed that FEMA’s lawyers cautioned against testing (pdf) to see if there were problems for fear that FEMA might then be legally liable and that the clock would "be running on [FEMA's] duty to respond to [the problems]."  (We're up to 16 months and counting for those keeping score at home)  The Committee's Ranking Member, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), scolded Paulison, telling him that FEMA's lawyers "need some adult supervision."  Paulison then refused to apologize to the victims when directly asked to do so, repeatedly citing uncertainty over whether formaldehyde was really the cause of their problems.

The Sierra Club's April 2006 tests first brought attention to the problem, something Paulison acknowledged was a "wake-up call."  Of course this wake-up call hasn't actually prompted FEMA to take any substantive action -- other than lawyering-up and then telling hurricane victims to simply open their windows.  Chairman Waxman responded by telling Paulison that he "must be a very hard sleeper."


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